Stories from an Alaskan Cabin: Chapter Six

“In an effort to make up for my lackluster performance at chopping kindling, I’ll go,” said Gerald.

“Great!” said George.

“Let’s hear it,” said John.

“That’s the spirit,” said Lee.

And this is the story Gerald told:

Nukilik stepped out of her igloo and into the dark. She had expected the sun to rise for the first time in the last six months, but the horizon remained dark. It was unlikely that the elders had miscalculated, she thought. Something must’ve gone wrong. She walked to the next igloo and home of the most senior elder. She wasn’t the only one outside the entrance waiting for some word. The entire tribe was there, and everyone was talking at once.

Amaruq exited his igloo. “The other elders and I have spoken. It appears Seqinek has been trapped in her home in the east. She should have appeared briefly today as she began training for the long summer days. But we did not see her.” He paused and thought. “With the shortness of the summer season, we cannot wait to see if she is freed tomorrow and the next day. We must take action now. Who among us is brave enough to go to the East and seek Seqinek to help her against whatever foe she is facing?”

The crowd took a step back. Many of the men began returning to their igloos. They would not leave their families to travel across a dark and cold land to fight against something that could trap a god.

Amaruq shouted to be heard by those leaving, “Are there none who would fight for the sun’s return?”

Nukilik stepped forward. “I will go if the Elder Council will grant me one week and supply me with three harpoons, a barrel of whale oil, and the Tribe’s Ulu.”

Amaruq snorted, “The Tribe’s Ulu? What good will that be? We need it here for our protection.”

“Without it, there’s no hope of defeating Seqinek’s captor, and we have no hope of surviving the coming season of the dark,” said Nukilik. “With it, I can harness our tribal magic and ensure our victory.”

“Or ultimate death if you fail.”

Nukilik chuckled and bowed. “Or that, but I prefer to look on the sunny side.”

Amaruq nodded his head, and Nukilik walked away. She would need to plan this right and be ready for any situation. Who would trap Seqinek and why?

Nukilik sat in her igloo contemplating the coming trip. She would need to gather food, stock her quiver, harness dogs to the sled, and go east. From there, she had no idea what she would do. She meditated waiting for inspiration.

The next day, she went to her brother’s hut. “I need your warm coat, brother.”

Her brother looked at her. “I know what you have offered, but how do you plan to survive?”

“For starters, with your warm coat. If I do not go, we do not survive. If I do not free Seqinek, we do not survive. Since no man was willing to go, instead they fled like the arctic hare from the fox, I will go. I am strong enough. My bow and arrows are accurate. My dogs are fast and untiring. Amaruq will give me the Tribe’s Ulu. Its magic will protect me. The harpoons will provide food, and Seqinek’s brother will smile upon my mission. Now,” She took off her warm coat, “you wear this coat and give me yours so that my arms may move freely as I hunt the unknown.” She threw it at his feet.

Her brother decided that he would only add to his shame by arguing with her. He thought he should be the one to go, but his children and his wife depended on him for their food, shelter, and clothes. His sister had no family. “So be it,” he grabbed his great coat from the hook where it hung. “May it keep you warm in during the coldest winter storm.” He handed it to her.

“Better that no storm would come at all,” said Nukilik. She put the heavy coat on.

“Yes, that would be better.”

She left her brother’s hut and returned to her own. Each day had its own rhythm, even in the darkness. She would follow that rhythm and not let anxiety or fear cause her to move too quickly. She meditated and waited for the next day.

When the time was right, she went out of her igloo to see Kallik. She met him going between huts. “Kallik, your arrows fly faster than any other n the village and strike with thunder. I need 20 of them to take with me to the east.”

“Yes, little sister, you will need more than my arrows. Come with me to visit Ikiaq and see if he has a bow that can help.”

They both went to Ikiaq, who handed her a blood red bow. “This bow will strike an enemy to his core. Take it and be well.”

Kallik came to her with new arrows before dinner time. “Why do you wait so long to go?”

“Patience and preparation are at the heart of any battle. Now is not the time to go. I must first be sure my ally is ready,” she said.

“But at what cost?” He asked.

“At the cost of victory. If I don’t have the right preparation, physical and mental, we will lose even more.”

Kallik left the arrows with her and went back to his igloo.

Nukilik went back to meditating, running as many possible situations through her mind as possible, and being open for help from the universe and her gods.

The next day, Tulugaak visited Nukilik. The old woman’s eyes squinted and wore crow’s feet like a cloak. She reached into her over coat and pulled out a lamp. “Dark times are here, dear, but they will get darker still. You should be prepared. Let this lamp guide you when brother has failed.” Nukilik took the lamp and thanked Tulugaak, who left the igloo as quietly as she had come.

With only two days until she would leave, Nukilik knew it was time to gather food. The dogs wouldn’t run without it, and she wouldn’t be much use if she didn’t eat. After consulting with the elders, she decided to prepare for two weeks’ travel. If it took longer, there was little hope that the tribe would be able to store up enough food for the next winter. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to hunt in the dark. Each member of the tribe gave her a portion of food until she had enough. She stashed it on her sled and waited for the next day to arrive.

On the last day, she called her dogs. They came to her, and she tied them outside the igloo. They would leave soon. The dogs could sense the coming trip. They jumped and barked and strained at their tethers to be released to the sled. They would pull her to the edge of the Earth if need be, but she couldn’t leave until the time was right. No one had seen the sun during the week.

When the full Moon peaked out over the mountains, Nukilik harnessed her dogs to the sled. They leaped to be in the harness. They yipped to be on the trail. As the Moon crested the mountains, the landscape lit up. The white snow reflected the moonlight. Nukilik would be able to see to travel.

“Come, Brother Tatqim, show me where your sister is.” She said to the Moon. She grabbed the reins and shouted at her dogs. “Let’s go!” She ran behind the sled, pushing to help the dogs get started. When she slid out of the village, she stood on her runners. The others in the tribe wished her luck from their igloos.

She raced her dogs through the night following the light of the Moon. It was more intense where the Moon wanted her to go. She wasn’t keeping track of much more than the light and shadows as she let Tatqim guide her. The fullness of the Moon made it easy for the dogs to see the trail in front of them, and Nukilik didn’t believe that Tatqim had anything to do with his sister’s failure to rise. The dogs would keep her out of any trouble.

The Moon seemed to slow its trip through the heavens. It extended its time on the snow and in the north. She mushed on. Even as she tired, she let her dogs due the work. As they got slower, so did the Moon. Still, Tatqim had other work to do. Nukilik could feel him pulling her like he pulled the tide. His light winked out for a moment and spotlighted a mountain far in front of her. The light bounced off the snow and ice, and the moon was gone.

Nukilik was going to have to set her path forward and hope she didn’t miss the mountain. She slowed the dogs and stopped for a rest. She fed the dogs and threw out some hay for them to lie on. Even with only the stars for light, she could handle these tasks. She started a small fire near the sled and the dogs, so they could all profit from the heat. She grabbed her bow and arrows and then she slept.

When the Moon rose the next evening, it was a bit dimmer. Still, the light seemed intensified where it was directing Nukilik to go. The third and fourth evening carried on the same until the team reached the foot of the mountain they had seen on the first day. After briefly shining his light on a cave near the team, Tatqim seemed to run away taking the moonlight and comfort with him. Nukilik staked her sled and dogs away from the cave so they would not be hurt. She would need them to get home.

Nukilik heard a snuffling inside the cave. A growl issued from the darker area. She tied her three harpoons to three separate trees and kept the ropes short. She placed the harpoons behind the tree and turned toward the cave. The starlight was just enough for her to see the emerging form of a polar bear – larger than she had ever seen. It filled up the cavern’s entrance.

“Who’s there?” bellowed the bear.

Nukilik tilted the harpoon nearest her, wedging the handle into the ground, snow and ice. She hoped it would hold against a tremendous impact. She went out to the her left with her bow and arrow in her hand. “It’s is I, Nukilik, who has come to Nanuq to demand the release of Seqinek. My people need her light.”

The polar bear laughed. “You think you can free her? How would you do so?”

Nukilik pulled back her bowstring and let an arrow fly. It bounced off the polar bear’s skull.

The bear laughed again. “Now’s it my turn!”

Nukilik ducked behind the tree and ran toward her second harpoon. The polar bear was quick. It rounded the tree behind her and impaled itself on the first harpoon. The bear roared. The harpoon stuck deep into its shoulder.

Nukilik picked up the second harpoon and threw it hard into the opposite shoulder. The bear roared again and chased her in rage. Nukilik dodged between trees. The harpoon ropes attached to the polar bear wound around the trees as the bear didn’t pay any attention to them. Its only intent was to kill its prey that had hurt it.

Nukilik grabbed the third harpoon and rolled. She put the butt-end on the ground and the point faced the bear who ran into it and bowled her over. Arrows scattered from her quiver; she held onto the bow. The impact had knocked her back.

The bear rose up to its full height and roared. “No one challenges Tornarssuk and lives. All must pass through the gates of death.” The bear came down to all fours; the earth shook. It swiped at Nukilik. Its claws passed in front of her face. It swiped again and again. It couldn’t reach Nukilik. It roared out in frustration.

Nukilik went to her sled and grabbed her lamp. She lit it, grabbed the ulu, and grabbed a few arrows from the ground. She went into the cavern. Inside, the cavern was warm and lush. Seqinek was tied to the far wall, her torch lighting up the area around her. Seqinek was asleep.

Nukilik went to Seqinek and cut her bonds with the ulu. “Seqinek, get up. You must run.”

Seqinek nodded weakly. Nukilik lifted her up. “Come on. You must run.”

Seqinek opened her eyes. “Who are you?”

“No questions. Run!”

Nukilik nocked and arrow and ran in front of Seqinek. “Tornarssuk is outside. I’ll distract him. You must run fast.”

Nukilik exited the cavern with Seqinek behind her.

“Nooooo! The light is mine.” He roared standing on two legs; he hadn’t freed himself from the harpoons, but he had disentangled them enough to be in front of the cave.

Nukilik fired an arrow into his stomach. “You’ll have to get through me first.” She nocked another arrow and let it fly. It landed next to a harpoon as the bear hit the ground.

Seqinek ran perpendicular to the cave opening and away from the bear. Her light ascended into the sky and disappeared quickly over the horizon. It was a short first day, but it would be enough.

“You have freed Seqinek! Now, free me,” said Tornarssuk.

“I will do so as long as you promise not to capture her again.”

“You have my word,” said Tornarssuk.

Seqinek pulled the harpoons from the bear’s hide. Tornarssuk disappeared into the cave and she went back to her tribe. Each day, the sun stayed a little longer in the sky as Seqinek regained her courage.